At some point, cell phones could become a primary payment vehicle through the use of radio-frequency tags.
One of the most exciting frontiers in retailing is the evolution of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology. Tiny RFID tags, which are embedded into individual product packaging, each contain a memory chip with a unique electronic product code and data that are accessed by an electromagnetic reader, which then passes the data to a host computer. The process is similar to reading bar codes except that the data storage capability of RFID tags is much greater, so they can identify each individual piece rather than simply a category. RFID tags can also be "active," meaning their stored data can be augmented or updated.
But RFID has other applications than product tracking, as the accuracy and "contactless" nature of the data transmission from the chip to the reader makes it a natural for facilitating transactions where there is no requirement for a signature (that is, under $25).
The software firm InfoGenesis, for example, has integrated RFID with POS technology to develop a more convenient payment vehicle for guests at some hotels and their neighboring businesses. It has implemented a waterproof RFID-enabled wristband encoded with a guest's information that can be waved over an electromagnetic POS reader to record a purchase, which is then billed to the guest's room. The result has been a significant uptick in per-guest spending.
The giant credit card firm MasterCard Worldwide has based its PayPass touchless payment product on RFID, and it is now in the midst of a pilot program with cellphone vendor Nokia. A select set of customers have had their Nokia mobile phones enabled with PayPass transmitters, which allows them to make purchases at any of the 32,000 merchant locations worldwide (including major chains like McDonald's, 7-Eleven Stores and CVS) that accept PayPass.
Indeed, this RFID-based cashless world might especially benefit vending, freeing it not only from its cash-bound nickel-and-dime roots, but also enabling it to become the ultimate convenience retailing solution, dispensing everything from middle-of-the-night pizzas to early-morning toiletries and end-of-the-day DVDs.
Electronic payment can also open vending machines to pricier products, turning them into round-the-clock mini-c-stores, a phenomenon already well developed in the Far East. Vending machines and other convenience retailing outlets taking RFID-based payment are especially applicable to onsite environments, where the populations (such as students or employees) are already used to carrying site-specific identifiers like access cards, meal plan cards and ID tags.
Activator units that trigger RFID-based transactions are contained in various mediums, from plastic cards to key fobs. However, in Japan, the process has been fully integrated with cell phones, a device carried by most consumers, especially the younger demographic most comfortable with the convenience of vending. Early this year, Coca-Cola Japan announced that it will equip all its 200,000 vending machines to accept cell phone based payment by the end of 2008. To pay for purchases, customers wave the phone, which includes an embedded contactless credit card called Felicia, across a sensor on the machine, and it takes payment automatically. That payment then appears on the customer's monthly cell phone bill.
Meanwhile, at the Swedish headquarters of mobile phone giant Ericsson, a model vending machine dispenses cans of soda based on text message prompts from cell phones, with the price automatically charged to the user's phone bill.
Heat on Demand
What would you say to a recipe card that automatically gives cooking instructions to your pan? What about chafing dishes that automatically adjust for not only the kind of food being held, but continuously recalibrate as that food is depleted by diners? Or take out/room service dishes that automatically heat the food to the right temperature and keep it there?
Those are some of the applications contemplated or actually developed using wireless temperature control and thermal storage technology licensed by a Wichita, KS-based intellectual property development firm called Thermal Solutions, Inc.
Closed-loop RFID tags provide information about the object being heated—a pan, say—that is understood by a reader, which then makes continuous adjustments based on the reading. The reader can also store preprogrammed instructions, like a recipe, so it in effect can send cooking instructions to the pot.
The same technology can also be used to program customized reheating instructions into ready-to-eat meals.
In hospitals such a system could retherm meals at the unit level just before serving. Or it can be used to heat takeout containers, such as pizza bags. In a buffet environment, it can keep items at optimum temperatures and even adjust for volume changes so that as pans are depleted, the sensor automatically throttles the heat down, preserving food integrity and saving energy. (For more, see www.thermalsolutions.tv)